As information is gathered, it must be analysed for purposes of verification, corroboration, and extraction of the most important details, as well as to identify new requirements and information methods. Even the analysis of open information occasionally needs to be, in hazardous conditions, a secret activity. For one, keeping secret the lists of open sources and names of people might be required to prevent others from tampering with them. More importantly, nations or conflicting parties could object if they found out that the United Nations might be analysing their behaviour. Should the analysis involve scenario building, including worst-case estimates, prediction, and passing judgement on a leader’s character (which is often necessary to make realistic assessments and predictions), conflicting parties would find this activity offensive. Some governments might object, based on fears of UN interference, and label the activity as UN spying.
For instance, when the Office for Research and the Collection of Information (ORCI) was established in the UN Secretariat in 1987, a group of nine conservative United States senators openly objected to its creation and proffered a bill in the Senate to withhold more US dues in the amount that the office would cost.26 They claimed that ORCI would be used as a base for Soviet espionage, even though the office was placed under an African (Jarnes Jonah from Sierra Leone), and its information gathering was basically limited to taking newspaper reports from the wire services. But more amenable leaders in the U.S. government prevailed. State Department officials convinced the senators of the lack of foundation for their fears, and the bill was dropped. Still, the UN has to take into account such domestic concerns, especially when those maintaining the fears have their hands on the national purse strings.
Yet, the UN has little competency in analysis, scenario building, and prediction. Desk officers do virtually none of this, being overloaded with simple information gathering and a minimal of organising. The strongest analytical capacity exists within the Information and Research (I&R) Unit of the Situation Centre, which is part of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). Though small, with only four ‘intelligence’ officers, it has the greatest ‘reach’ in terms of information gathering and analysis because these individuals are ‘connected’ to national intelligence systems, having been seconded from them. Created in 1994 with one US intelligence officer, the unit grew to include four officers drawn from four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (France, Russia, UK, and the United States).27 The analysts who work there unashamedly, though unofficially, call themselves intelligence officers, which is not surprising since they are mostly drawn from the intelligence branches of their militaries. They have produced important information/intelligence reports that have gone well beyond the scope of regular UN reports, including information on arms flows and covert assistance from states to the conflicting parties and leaders. They have evaluated the motivations of contending parties, prepared threat assessments, and made other forecasts.
With the UN’s decision to phase out from service in DPKO the gratis officers (whose salaries are paid by their national governments), the future of this important unit is in doubt. Many developing nations, which could not afford to send gratis officers, were resentful of the over-representation of Western governments in the Department. Secrecy in the workings and deliberations of the Security Council, the body primarily responsible for guiding UN peace operations, is a matter of contention in the UN. The five permanent members (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States) began in 1988 to engage in intensive and frequent private consultations. This process, while welcome as a measure of cooperation between them, became formalised with frequent closed-door meetings, freezing many UN members and the world public out of the picture. The Security Council currently meets far more regularly in closed, rather than open, sessions in a private room next to the Council chambers. Non-Council members cannot attend unless they are specifically invited or involved in the conflict. This practice of strict secrecy naturally creates suspicion and apprehension among other UN members, who remind the Security Council that, according to Article 24 of the Charter, the council ‘acts on their behalf’, but, ironically, doesn’t let them know what they are planning. Countries like Canada, which often have military and civilian personnel in the field under UN command, feel that the information sharing is inadequate.28 UN members, including General Assembly itself, have repeatedly called for more transparency in the Security Council’s deliberations. Gradual improvements, such as more frequent briefings of non-members and more publicly available documentation, have been made.
The ability to carefully and wisely distinguish between what should be open and what should be secret (and for how long) is the key to creating confidence within both the UN and the international community. An effective confidentiality system is necessary to maintain the proper balance, whether in the Security Council, at UN headquarters, or in held operations. In this regard, the UN system is weak in comparison with that of most governments, and devotes few resources to it. While the UN Secretariat has ‘categories’ of information confidentiality (UN-restricted, confidential, secret, and top secret), specific means for handling of information in these categories is not recognised or followed, in terms of either physical security (locks) or dissemination and declassification procedures. Some PKO’s instituted their own classification systems with more than the four categories. Sometimes the UN is overly secretive (even about trivial documents over forty years old) and sometimes-sensitive information is shared indiscriminately. Numerous leaks have caused some governments to consider the UN as a sieve, Javier Perez de Cuellar, from his vantage point atop the UN hierarchy from 1981 to 1991, admits to this:
The diplomatic missions have always felt that security in the Secretariat is lax and that any confidential information provided to the Secretariat would quickly be widely circulated, In general, this is true... 29
That the Soviets, as well as other employees, at the UN reported regularly to their national governments on important developments was well known. Perez de Cuellar notes: ‘As long as the Cold War continued, Soviet staff members, whether KGB or not, owed their first loyalty to Moscow rather than to the United Nations ... As a result, and to their understandable frustration, the Soviet nationals in my office were excluded from sensitive functions.’30 Twenty years earlier, secretary-general U Thant sometimes purposefully used his Soviet Under-Secretary-General to convey selected information to the Soviet government, rather than going through official channels.
Within the Executive Office of the secretary-general, confidential information is usually handled more carefully. Perez de Cuellar reports that ‘in dealing with sensitive problems, I relied on the support of a very small staff in whose loyalty I had complete confidence.’31 He adds that his record of keeping secrets helped gain the confidence of the US government, which occasionally provided his office with intelligence assessments.
One such incidence occurred in early April l988, when a representative of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the US Department of State provided my chef de cabinet, Virendra Dayal, with a comprehensive assessment of the status of the conflict between Iran and Iraq. The information provided gave me reason to think that just possibly, after months of frustration, the time might be approaching when a cease-fire could be obtained.32
The question has been raised in the UN whether it should undertake formal agreements with governments for the regular sharing of information/intelligence,33 thereby increasing the amount of information that the UN could count on. Governments currently share information with the UN on a ‘need to know basis,’ for example, when the governments think that the UN needs to know. Some UN officials would prefer a pipeline of regular information, so that they could depend on a constant input from various sources and make the choice themselves as to which information is useful. The UN could then better corroborate information among different sources and decrease the danger that information is provided in a partial, biased form with interpretation and fact combined. The disadvantage could be that the UN might be formally restricted on how it shares this information, once received. Also, the UN could suffer from information overload (perhaps deliberately by the supplier), given the secretariat’s lack of staff and expertise in intelligence management.
What, then, should be the UN’s policy on secrecy? A balance between secrecy and openness obviously needs to be achieved. While information secrecy should be situation-dependent, guidelines for the classification of information are valuable. The emphasis should be on openness,34 but, in cases where secrecy is warranted, it should be strictly maintained. One approach or ‘rule’ is suggested here.
Information should be open unless by divulging it, the UN would:
a. result in death or injury to individuals;
b. bring about failure of a UN mission or mandate;
c. violate the right to privacy of one or more individuals; or
d. compromise confidential sources or methods .
The degree of secrecy (restricted, confidential, secret, top secret) would depend on the extent of the threat of information release. With each higher category, the degree of security is increased through better physical security (e.g., using safes, restricted areas, etc.), closer monitoring of documents (e.g., by numbering each copy), and routine checks by an authority made responsible for the confidentiality system (something that has been done in the newly-established Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, located in The Hague).
The UN should also have a smooth procedure for declassification. Currently, the UN archives have a 20-year rule, though any information marked secret or top secret must be reviewed by all the relevant departments (DPKO, DPA, etc.) even after that period has passed. In practice, this system has many failings, and requests for the declassification may take years to wind through the system. Many national government models could be reviewed by the UN as it seeks to establish a more robust and yet flexible confidentiality regime.